Adam Babbitt opened the Bar Harbor Pick-A-Pearl Co. in May, just after the start of this year’s cruise season. The wedding planner and officiant, and former Disney Cruise Line employee, sells “jewelry with a memory” in a small shop right on the water where customers can fish oysters from a tank containing pearls of varying colors that can be set into pendants within minutes.
Like other local merchants, Babbitt stands to gain from more ships arriving this year and a longer season, not just in Bar Harbor, but Maine as a whole.
“We get a lot of business from the cruise ships, but it could always be better,” he said.
The cruise ship industry is reaching cruising speed in Maine, with 410 ship visits expected this year, compared to 361 in 2016 and 271 a decade ago. Some 39 ships from 21 cruise brands are projected for 2017, including newcomers Disney and TUI Cruises, a joint venture between German tourism company TUI AG and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. The season will also run an extra 10 days, from April 23 with the German-operated Amadea in Bar Harbor through Nov. 2 when the Bahamas-registered Seven Seas Mariner is due in Portland.
While itineraries and timetables can change because of weather or other factors, Maine continues to grow in prominence as a cruise destination.
“If you look at Maine as a whole we’re doing really well from a global perspective,” said Amy Powers, director of the CruiseMaineUSA promotional agency. As the industry keeps adding new ships and capacity worldwide, “one of the things we would like to do is to try to capture as much of that capacity as possible.”
Those efforts include promotion of the region through the Cruise Canada New England Alliance, due to release a new strategic plan this June.
“The whole Canada-New England area is really thriving,” said Bob Leeman, Cruise Portland’s marketing manager. “It’s not one port that’s making a difference, it’s the whole group of us.”
Bar Harbor is Maine’s busiest cruise port with 163 ship visits due in 2017, up from 105 in 2016, followed by Portland with 90 and then Camden and Boothbay Harbor with 31 apiece. All will see an increase this year as the industry as a whole rides a wave of new investment and growth.
In total, 25.3 million people are expected to take to the seas this year for a global economic impact of $117 billion, according to the latest forecast from Cruise Lines International Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.
The report also found that 26 new ships were on order as of December 2016, including $6.8 billion worth of ocean vessels, and that eight out of 10 CLIA-certified travel agents are expecting higher sales this year. Demand for cruises jumped 62 percent from 2005 to 2015, and is seen staying strong.
Sarah Kennedy, CLIA’s public relations director, said that while “people still love the Caribbean, what’s new in the past two years is that North America is also becoming a key destination for travelers.”
She adds that although the region has always lured Europeans, Americans like ports they can easily drive to, avoiding airport security hassles, though many need to be reminded about places close to home.
“There are so many options that people just forget,” she said.
Bar Harbor at a crossroads
Bar Harbor, perhaps best known for Acadia National Park, lures lots of first-time visitors to Maine, said Todd Gabe, a University of Southern Maine economics professor who co-authored an economic impact study published in February.
Cruise passengers tend to come from outside Maine’s traditional tourism sources: out of 1,896 domestic passengers surveyed, Florida accounted for 9.7 percent and California 9.5 percent of the cruise-ship visitors in Bar Harbor.
“The ships really open up the state to people that otherwise wouldn’t come to Maine,” Gabe said.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said the cruise stop was their first time in Bar Harbor, and 11 percent cited the opportunity to visit Bar Harbor as the main reason for selecting the cruise. The study also found that 88 percent are over 50, and they tend to be highly educated and affluent.
Passengers spent $15 million in 2016, for an estimated economic impact of $20.2 million. Over 96 percent of respondents said they had visited at least one store or restaurant or bar during their stay, and one out of three went to 10 or more places.
Impressions of Bar Harbor were positive, with 44 percent of respondents wishing for one more day in port and 29 intending to return in the next two years.
But how many more cruise visitors can the town of 5,000 accommodate? Bar Harbor limits the number of incoming passengers to 3,500 per day in July and August and 5,500 at other times, to “balance how many people the town can handle,” said Town Manager Cornell Knight. “Congestion is an issue.”
To alleviate road traffic into Bar Harbor, the Maine Department of Transportation plans to revamp 4.8 miles of Route 3, which will include new pedestrian and bike paths, over the next three years. And to make life easier for cruise ships and passengers, the town wants to buy the former international ferry terminal from the state and repurpose it for cruise ships, which currently have to tender passengers in from three anchor points.
Bar Harbor has the exclusive right to buy the property for $2.5 million, or $2 million with an approved business plan and developer lined up by closing.
“Maine has created an opportunity for the town to purchase this at an excellent price,” said Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “I would hate to see that not happen.”
But the plan hinges on winning voters’ approval for changes to the land-use ordinance on the June 13 ballot. In addition, a citizens’ initiative, on the same ballot, would restrict the length of cruise ships that could tie up at a town pier, potentially derailing the town’s ambitions.
“If the citizens’ initiative passes then the town will not be buying the terminal,” said Knight. “We’ll continue with the congestion, and whether that affects long-term numbers is unclear. There are cruise lines that do not come because it’s a tendering port.”
That’s definitely true of Miami-headquartered Carnival Cruise Line, which has been calling on Portland since 2002 as part of its seven-day fall foliage cruises, according to spokesman Vance Gulliksen.
“We strongly prefer to visit ports where the ship can dock because it provides our guests with a much more favorable experience ashore,” he said. And while Carnival does not have any Canadian or New England plans for 2018, “Portland is a popular destination for our guests and we are looking forward to returning in future years.”
Best of the rest
Among other ports, Rockland, Camden and Boothbay Harbor are all expecting more ships this year, while Bath and Belfast will see declines.
Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Chamber of Commerce, said that while places like Camden or Rockland don’t have anywhere near the capacity of Portland or Bar Harbor, “the feeling is positive that it’s a nice addition to our economy while not really changing the character of the area.”
Smaller ports are also a draw for cruise lines such as American Cruise Lines, whose eight-day Maine cruise starts and ends in Portland with stops in places such as Castine, Belfast, Camden and Bath. “The passengers get a much more authentic experience,” said ACL’s marketing director Charles Robertson.
In Washington County, Eastport is not expecting any cruise visits this year as it nears the finish line of a $16 million breakwater reconstruction project that took more time and money than planned. The pier collapsed in late 2014.
Christopher Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, said the city’s breakwater reconstruction will be “substantially finished” by mid- to late July, though it will hold a public celebration on July 4.
“We’re going to try to bring the cruise ships back to the way we know that we can,” Gardner said, citing the recent purchase of a bus to do local sightseeing tours.
“We don’t want to compete with Bar Harbor,” Gardner said. “We recognize that they have their own niche and their long-standing traditions.”
And while Bar Harbor may have to eventually limit the number of visits to its port, Eastport would welcome vessels with open arms.
“We’d take all we could get,” he said.
Eastport also has another feature that many rivals don’t: Besides deep water and a pier where ships can dock, Eastport is one of the few Class 1 ports in Maine that can accept foreign passengers and offer customs clearance on site.
“We have tried to market ourselves as much to the logistics of the vessels as the experience,” Gardner said, adding that the town is in discussions with cruise companies to drum up long-term business. “I think we have some great opportunities.”